In the space of 15 years the luxurious Gunboat cats have gained something of a cult following. Toby Hodges can see why when he creams round the Caribbean in the captivating Gunboat 55
And that’s saying something for a catamaran, which can look bulky and awkward to anyone bar diehard multihull converts. But the Gunboat 55 takes cool to a whole new level. Try as I might I can’t think of another boat that comes close to her as a pin-up: a curvaceous yet fiery, muscular yet elegant design, drawn by the godfather of lightweight multihulls, Nigel Irens.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Gunboat sold 15 of the 55 before the first hulls were even built. That’s the sort of numbers the French and German behemoths of production yacht building would smack their lips at, but this is a semi-custom, US$2m luxury all-carbon machine. And, remarkably, these sales are all to customers new to multihulls.
Over the past 15 years Gunboat has amassed a cult following. It produces a modern multihull take on a cruiser-racer that has mesmerised a younger, active, speed-thirsty generation of sailors. During its first 11 years of building in South Africa, Gunboat produced just 15 boats to three designs. After setting up its own boatbuilding enterprise locally in North Carolina, it is manufacturing the same number of 55s in just two years.
Bringing production in-house and introducing a novel concept that pushes the parameters of fast cruising cat design by re-examining how we sail and live aboard is key to the 55’s popularity. Moreover, behind the head-turning looks, the 55 benefits from the full suite of Gunboat attributes: the fast cruiser, the racing cat and the social platform.
It is a recipe the brand has honed, and during and following the Heineken Regatta in St Maarten, we explored all these ingredients in detail.
The Gunboat rush
Rooster tails began to rise off the transoms. A fine spray fired off the leeward bow as a gust hit. We carried it downwind as the apparent wind shot forward, feeling the surge and watching the speedo rise from mid-teens to 20 knots. Exhilarating? It was sensational!
This was no stripped-out raceboat with an army of crew trimming an overpowered kite. On the 55 we were carrying just a reefed main and jib, one person helming and one on the sheet. And we were absolutely smoking.
You can feel the wind through the open windows and roof, giving a sense of speed, but it remained quiet and calm aboard, broken only occasionally by the harsh scream of a loaded sheet being eased.
We had a couple of days and nights cruising aboard the 55 in challenging weather. The wind didn’t dip below 20 knots and we saw frequent rain squalls with 30-knot gusts – a full blown gale in apparent wind speed terms. Yet the 55 consistently felt steady and controlled.
Heading upwind, for example, she felt stable and stiff, with no movement inside. We averaged 10-11 knots (at just under 40°A), up to 13 by cracking off 10°. Even though I had raced aboard Toccata in similar conditions, it was feeling the sensation from the helm going upwind that proved a highlight, a revelation in fact. It was a rush at the very angle where you wouldn’t expect it.
Upwind we predominantly had one reef in the main and the self-tacking Solent hoisted. The 55 coped well with the big gusts (up to 45 knots apparent) and rode over the Caribbean swells with very little slamming. She is a powerful beast to manage in a breeze, though. Trim buttons on the pedestal make it ultra-simple to ease the mainsheet quickly via a hydraulic ram – the first action required in a gust, as it twists off the vast, square-top sail.
Having two experienced multihull sailors beside me aided my confidence to push, however owner-operators will obviously need to treat this turbo-charged cruiser with caution. Sound weather routeing and early reefing are key.
Dip the bow a little and you feel the subtle change as she lifts a hull, the airborne rudder whistling as you hit full-pelt mode. Spin the carbon wheel through a tack and you can feel her come off the plane, like a hovercraft sinking into displacement mode. But within seconds she accelerates back to double figures.
With the boards down to 80º (90º is max) she feels balanced, with a trace of feedback to the helm. Offwind she is a different animal – a firm grip is required to muscle the loaded helm.
Off piste thrills
“The trouble with this boat is that you don’t get enough sailing time because you get there too quickly,” said photographer Richard Langdon. It was a concise appraisal of the 55, but also a genuine problem when trying to get sailing shots. It was too windy for a planned helicopter shoot and too bumpy even to try to hold a camera at speed from the water.
We were across the Anguilla channel, a six nautical mile run, in minutes. But what an epic few minutes! Reaching in a breeze on the Gunboat 55 needs sea-room and preparation. It is equivalent to hiking up a mountain to access a fresh powder run – you know it will be a long slog getting up, but think of the buzz going back down.
In Force 6 and 7 winds and 2-3m swells Toccata absolutely flew. It’s an incredible sensation on the helm: a certifiable adrenalin ride. Palms sweat, the heart rate rockets and your cheeks soon ache from grinning – and all aboard a luxurious pad.
Glance aft to check for gusts or waves and you’ll notice nothing has changed: drinks can be left on counter tops, crew can be reading a book in panoramic comfort… it’s truly a head spin.
Of course, concentration is certainly demanded when helming in a breeze, doubly so when you are unable to sense the conditions easily. But the 55 provides easy rewards. Yes, we hit speeds over 20 knots, but it’s not the top speed that impressed so much as the consistency.
Past Gunboat models such as the 62 and 66 have a defined transition zone. Like a powerboat struggling to get on the plane, once they hit 13 knots they fly into the early 20s. The 55, however, consistently made 15-20 knots reaching, comfortably, stably, easily, whether in waves and big winds under jib or asymmetric, or on flat water with the furling R1/screecher sail up.
The 55 is a passagemaking mile-gobbler, and one that had me hooked.
The cockpit is the heart of the 55. Its clever design allows this shared living and sailing area to work harmoniously. It achieves an elusive goal by not making you feel as if you’re ‘inside’, unless you want to.
That said, it still is sailing from inside, an instant put-off for some. It requires crew to be extra-vigilant to the surrounding conditions that they might otherwise have a natural sense for when sailing outside.
Gunboat founder Peter Johnstone admits they were struggling with the exterior forward cockpit concept employed on Gunboats until now. “We didn’t want to have to put foulweather gear on again – sailing fast cats from outside sucks. So by moving the windshield forward and putting a TP52-style pit area in, we’ve altered the cockpit and made the handling of the boat even easier,” he says.
Beating into the high apparent winds we met proved this concept. The windows forward of the cockpit, plus an extra-large hatch or ‘moonroof’ above, all slide open, meaning you can feel the wind and see the sails. Sheets and halyards are all close to hand, so there was no shouting, no raised voices even – and no wet weather gear in sight.
The winch pit area is intricately designed so that two people can operate all sheets and halyards while racing, or manage the boat cruising. High-load clutches allow the traveller to be eased instantly without needing to monopolise a winch. And there are emergency stop buttons to cut power to winches or to dump the mainsheet.
With just two Harken 60 winches, keeping things tidy is paramount. In race mode, the two trimmers/pit crew have a comfortable standing position, with full view of the headsails.
The deck gear is comparable to that of a maxi – loops and lashings, 2:1 leads, top-down furlers, halyard locks, etc. Inevitably the loads are frighteningly high so owners will need to get used to big boat systems. An example is the halyard locks inside the Hall mast. This is a clever solution for reducing halyard stretch and mast compression, as long as the halyards are clearly marked to show when to ease onto the lock.